A Swim in Denial

What we can't think about and how it shapes us.

Barking at Thunder

The symbolic animal strives to be the big dog.

The expedition's mascot is Gracie the mini-dachshund. The first time a thunderstorm broke over da Nile, she fired back with barking as explosive as a howitzer. She was a puppy, a kid. The pipsqueak threw herself into an outraged and alarmed, do-or-die protest.

Like an exploding artillery shell, a thunderclap is terrifying not only because it signals destruction, but also because it engulfs you. It reminds you that world is bigger than we are. The sound is omnidirectional, a rumble that shakes the earth under your feet. It tells you that the everyday world we live in is artificially sized to make us feel at home. Compared to the voltage splitting the sky, the world we know is the sort of model railroad town the hobby shop sells as Plasticville.

So thunder punched a hole in the dog's reality, and Gracie reacted to the shock with a roar of protest. Most of us—dogs and humans—seek shelter from a thunderstorm. But the dog mixed flight with fight by answering the storm's threat with a threat of her own.

In dog-terms, without being anthropomorphic about it, the storm assaulted the dog's expectations. It violated her sense of what is right. Shakespeare's King Lear howls at a storm because it signifies that his everyday world of family and law is collapsing into madness and death. The storm objectifies a terrific violation of what is right, and the king—the supreme biped—reacts as the dog does, with threat-display and howling defiance.

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Thunder reminds us that reality is contextual. To the dog, the dog's reality is complete and natural, thank you very much. It may change with growth and training, as our does, but it's still what is. We too assume that our reality is the real thing, though as scientists we know it's at best only approximately complete. Like the dog, we too show caution and doubt when things are unfamiliar, but we fill those blank spaces with theories or question marks.  And sometimes—admit it—we bark our fool heads off at Nothing.

Thunder is shocking because it insists that we're puny creatures in a vast and strange field of play. As brainy bipeds, we react by building up cultures to shelter us. We put a roof over us, and create stories, theories, and Ben Franklin's lightning rod to tame thunder. We get control over our distress by turning anxiety into creative curiosity and technology. We organize.

But the dog's response is revealing. The bark is a social act, an alarm signal. It's also a threat display working to intimidate the "enemy." The bark enlarges the dog. Like the cobra's hood or the warrior's crested helmet, the bark magnifies the appearance of power. Its shock and awe display announces a determination to fight over what is right. Yes, it's a show. Fido is not about to go mano-a-mano with Thor. For one thing, there's no one there for her to bite. No enemy to intimidate. For us too, the gods are only enabling fictions. Sacrificing a chicken to Zeus will give you less protection than a knowledge of electrical grounds and a surge protector.

Still, the bark is aggressive. And profound. It signifies the wish to be bigger than we are—a bigshot. To put it politely, we strive to grow.  Less politely, we compensate for being puny with honking self-aggrandizement.  We claim that God has made us lord of creation.  If that gets dull, we eat forbidden fruit and kill our brother Abel.  Even the term "bigshot" suggests an explosion, as of thunder or gunpowder: the ability to command attention and control others through overwhelming shock. We hunt and go to war with "big shots." We kill fish with underwater explosions, and killed Iraqis with an arsenal of "shock and awe." Nazis "storm" troopers used Blitzkrieg—"lightning war"—to stun the neighbors.

The links range far and wide. As a technology for dealing with cosmic threat, Christianity in early modern Europe took the storm to be the work of the Devil operating through malicious, crop-destroying witches who could be detected, tortured into a confession, and burned alive. The churches saw the storm as personified demonic rage attacking life-giving, death-defying food crops, even as witches were accused of killing and eating precious babies: the living embodiment of human hopes to overcome death.

The urge to be a bigshot is the urge to be heroic, for better or perverse. As Ernest Becker has eloquently barked, the drive toward heroism is a core motive that we draw on to manage the terror of death and futility, and to make life fulfilling.

But the bigshot bark also shows us that the wish to be bigger than we are can be unrealistic, false, and fatal.1  Not for nothing are therapists and psychiatrists called "shrinks"—that is, head shrinks—in the wisdom of slang.  Many rampage killers in the news oscillate between desperate abjection and grandiosity. Or think of Hitler, who was literally a shrimp, promoting himself from Viennese flop house and abject social death to megalomaniac Fuhrer flinging thunderbolts of death left and right. For that matter, even today, at this minute, listen to a campaign speech and you're likely to hear nutty clichés about your country's special superiority and power and everlasting righteousness fired off with huff and puff as if the politician himself is being fired out of a circus cannon.

In Beast and Man, the philosopher Mary Midgley demolishes the arguments we use to separate us from the other animals. One after another she demystifies our claims to be elevated above all other creatures. Like the dog, we're small animals, built to cringe and bark at thunder. But also, like Gracie, we can learn from experience that barking at a storm is pointless. Better to work on reading the shock and anxiety of exploding skies as signs of tomorrow's weather, and clues to what makes the universe bark.

Meanwhile the dog in snoozing.  One of these days we need to muse a bit about life as enabling fictions, and about the tacit quality of thinking. Maybe around the next bend in da Nile.

1. The younger analysts who barked back at Freud—Adler, Rank, and Horney—all emphasized the compensatory drive to self-inflation. Though it can be fashionable to sniff at analysis, Karen Horney's Neurosis and Human Growth still opens a revealing window on inner life centered around the bigshot "search for glory." The drive toward cultural heroism as symbolic immortality is at the heart of Ernest Becker's Denial of Death and Escape from Evil.

  A different version of this material appeared as "Semper Fido" at the Denial File."  <<http://thedenialfile.wordpress.com/

Kirby Farrell, Ph.D.'s most recent book is Berserk Style in American Culture.

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